The Depressed Prophet
These past two years have been very hard times for almost everyone on the globe. The pandemic itself is unprecedented in recent history and has been difficult for many to handle, not to mention the resulting job losses and the recent wars and natural disasters. As a result, mental-health crises are rising sharply, and if one can afford a therapist or even find a good one, the waiting lists are often long.
I could write something here about textual criticism or hermeneutical spirals, but in the face of these crises, I feel impressed to reflect on something more practical and heart-focused. In addition, as I have clinical depression myself, and as it has only been exacerbated by what feels like the world falling apart all around me, I need this message myself. Yet, Christians so often respond to depression with injunctions to “pray more” and “put a smile on your face, and you’ll feel better,” rather than really addressing the deeper struggles and needs.
So how can we understand the proper Christian attitude toward depression and discouragement, especially our own? Is it enough simply to smile and pray more? If we are discouraged and depressed, does it mean we do not have enough faith? While these are certainly possible and important issues to consider, when we look closely at the story of one very depressed prophet of God, there is a more comprehensive picture that points us instead to self-care, therapy, realizing the truth, and accepting help.
In 1 Kings 19, Elijah had just experienced God’s awesome miracles on Mt. Carmel. He was at the height of his influence to bring Israel back to serving God wholeheartedly. Yet Jezebel’s threats unseated him. He was terrified for his life, and ran away. Rather than staying and choosing to believe that God would protect him again, he gave in to fear. Not only that, he became suicidal, asking God to “‘take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers’” (vs. 4, ESV). He did not want to die at the hand of Jezebel, and he felt alone and believed that it would be better to die than live. Though this may be situational depression, rather than clinical depression, it was still severe enough that he wished to die.
Yet God did not give up on him or berate him. Instead, God set in motion a series of events that helped him to come through intact and healthier on the other side.
First of all, God allowed him to sleep for a couple of days (vss. 5, 6). Rather than initially dealing with Elijah’s request, God made sure that he had the rest needed to go into the battle ahead. During this time of rest, God provided him with healthful food and water that he did not have to make himself (vss. 5–7). Often it is difficult for those who are depressed and discouraged to get enough nutrition, and God understands this. The angel who met Elijah with the food also touched the prophet. A caring touch is often an important component of healing from depression, and also gives indication that someone is there and cares.
After Elijah’s rest, he walked for 40 days until he arrived at Mount Sinai (vs. 8). As this was only a 11-day journey (Deut. 1:2), he took a slow pace through the desert and mountains, and thus had plenty of time to think and rest along the way. Normally, people walked many more miles in a day, so God was still encouraging rest and reflection. In addition, this allowed Elijah to be outside in nature and away from civilization, while getting good exercise, both of which are important components of combating depression and discouragement.
God also directed Elijah to Sinai, the special place where He had often met with His people, worked miracles, and given them special messages (Exodus 3 and 4). Thus, Elijah was now in a private place to interact with God, but also in a place fraught with meaning, which he certainly could not help but consider.
After Elijah found a place to stay in a cave (1 Kings 19:9), God finally spoke to him. But rather than correcting his faulty perspective, God asked questions, similar to what might be called cognitive behavioral therapy today. God wanted to help Elijah to vent what he was feeling, since talking about one's feelings is also a part of healing. Elijah responded by focusing on himself and indicating that he was the only faithful one, and now his life was threatened (vs. 10). Rather than contradict him, God instead invited Elijah to stand on the mountain before him, inviting comparisons with Moses in the past (vs. 11). Yet here, unlike the mighty power exhibited with Israel after the Exodus, God showed up with a gentle whisper (vs. 12). God saw how much Elijah needed comfort and compassion and knew that a show of glory would not help Elijah to relax and understand the truth. God contrasted His presence in the low whisper by beginning with the great and strong wind, earthquake, and fire (vs. 11), making very clear that while He often uses those things, here with Elijah He was taking a different approach.
And then God asked the same question again, and Elijah gave the same response again (1 Kings 19:13, 14). The importance of asking questions and listening to someone who is discouraged, even if he or she repeats the same story, is highlighted here.
Only at this point did God respond verbally to what Elijah was saying. God’s speech has several components, and the correction aspect is only at the very end, and not direct at all!
First, God gave Elijah a renewed purpose, to return to anoint two different kings (1 Kings 19:15, 16). Having a reason to live is so important for those who are suicidal, and can keep them going when everything else seems to be falling apart. In addition, God gave Elijah a companion to train under him, who would be the next prophet (vs. 16). Elijah had spent so much time in isolation, and God knew he needed someone with whom to share his life. But Elisha was also there as an assistant to lighten his load (vs. 21). The solution for depression is not necessarily to work more and pray harder, but to take time to seek health. As in the case of Elijah, this often involves asking for and receiving help, as well as delegating some responsibilities.
It is only at this point that God reframes Elijah’s picture of reality. Only at the end of their conversation did God gently show him where he was wrong and needed correction in his understanding. But even here, God did not couch it as correction, but simply noted that there were actually 7,000 people who had not served Baal (vs. 18). God did not say, “You are wrong” or even directly address Elijah’s statements about himself, but kindly shared the truth.
As someone who struggles with depression and discouragement, I am so grateful for God’s incredibly patient, wise, and therapeutic treatment of this suicidal seer. What is even more astounding is that soon after this, Elijah was taken to heaven (2 Kings 2)! One would think that God would choose someone like Daniel or Joseph for this unusual reward, who had no recorded sins or struggles. But no, He instead chose someone prone to depression and discouragement, showing clearly that He sees and understands our hearts, and that depression does not mean we have failed, or even that we are far from God. Instead, He is right there with us, all along the way, seeking to heal and encourage, and to strengthen us to take up our calling anew.
So, if things in life are bringing you discouragement, or you are depressed, remember Elijah and know that you are not alone. And most of all, remember that you also serve Elijah’s God, who will treat you with the same compassion, tenderness, and patience, leading you toward health and wholeness.